What is the online “town square” and how should it work?

renee direstaThe news about Elon Musk’s intended purchase of Twitter has brought about a lot of hooey and hand-wringing. Here are my thoughts. I first listened to a very interesting interview by ex-White House speechwriter Jon Favereau of Renee DiResta, an expert on tech policy at the Stanford Internet Observatory, whom I have quoted numerous times in the past. She makes the case that Elon has a fundamental misunderstanding of what online free speech means, even ignoring the fact that free speech only applies to governments, not companies. Renee amplifies her piece for The Atlantic that she wrote a few weeks ago, saying that Elon is more about attention than freedom (and who knows if his bid will even go through). “Free expression should be a foundational value,” she wrote. She also makes the case that all online social media products moderate their content – and most do so reactively, inconsistently or clumsily or all three. This includes Truth Social, Gettr and Parler, just to name some of the more notable “free speech” ones. (The hyperlinks will take you to their community guidelines for your future reference.)

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the writers’ group PEN America, writes that “Musk will learn the hard way that there is no return to a mythic online Eden where all forms of speech flourish in miraculous harmony.” However, she agrees with him (and others) that our current content moderation methods are deeply flawed. If you haven’t learned the words “shadow banned” (where followers are deleted without telling them from your social accounts) or retconned (officially sanctioned revisionist history), you will hear them more often during these discussions.

So what is the solution? DiResta and others penned this piece in SciAm, suggesting that social media companies need to become more transparent. “The only way to understand what is happening on the platforms is for lawmakers and regulators to require social media companies to ​provide researchers and others access to data on the structures of social media, like platform features and algorithms​.”​ PEN’s Nossel is also for more transparency. She suggests that more moderation is essential to prevent spammers, trolls, and other quackery from taking over social media and that “robust content moderation is here to stay,” especially to try to stem the tide of false positive takedowns of content and users. For example: TikTok restores more than 1M videos each month after initially removing them for violations. Of course, they allow millions more to be posted to their site. But still, that is an awful lot of content to judge.

I think there is a bigger question that many of the commentators aren’t really addressing: do we really want an online town square? The comparison doesn’t really work when millions of people are shouting to be heard, or in places in the world that are under the grip of authoritarians. It very quickly devolves from the marketplace of ideas to mob rule. DiResta spoke about the “high harm areas of online that are worth moderating,” which is a good way to look at this, especially given the absence of facts being spewed there and how they are amplified and become part of the conversation offline.

3 thoughts on “What is the online “town square” and how should it work?

  1. Facebook, Twitter – it’s all money making nonsense. Facebook started out as “hot or not” in a college dorm room – classic solution without a problem turned into VC boon. Twitter is still looking for it’s ultimate monetization, but these two creations are just follow ons to Google search results – you pay to play on the Internet – it’s all about making a couple people outrageously rich yet society has to deal with the fall out. Facebook, Twitter, Google, TikTok, YouTube – just wealth vehicles – never meant for constructive dialogue or true sharing of wisdom, truth or much else worth my time. Elon? He’s in the Trump category, when narcissism and a god complex overtakes greed, then you are left to psychologists to explain why these people are called leaders and not in therapy. Of course we could use town squares, but first we need people to put down their phones and stop wasting their lives following solutions that never had a problem to start with – go hug your neighbor and see if they could use a date night so they can be better parents. Thanks D-strom, the Strominator!

  2. This is an important subject, thanks for addressing it David. I have a negative review social media in general, though I do think it can serve good purposes. More importantly my own view of it is irrelevant to its impact on millions of people. Social media is not going away. I have a friend who is a journalist who would have a very hard time making a living without Twitter. The fact that she has been bullied and harassed on Twitter and on Facebook doesn’t change the fact that she needs these tools to make a living. I don’t know what the solution is – likely the most we can hope for is damage control. I sometimes have considered that maybe Section 230 should be abolished, but I don’t know if that is suitable or helpful, even if it was possible (considering the downsides) . If you read the thinking of senators who decades ago crafted section 230, it sounds like a benign fairytale world. They were fearful of strangling the nascent social media businesses – they were viewed like fragile infants in an NICU who had to be handled with care. It is painful to think of how how naive that was,, given the strapping giants they have turned into.

  3. “do we really want an online town square? ” Seems to suggest we should be regulating that !
    I shudder to think what regulation on this would look like, although China and Russia might have some experience here.
    That is not to say that there are not some very difficult questions to be answered here. Getting a forum to discuss them leads us right back to the question of moderation again !
    A Gordian knot for sure.
    I very much doubt that Elon Musk is going to solve it, but I’m interested to see what he tries to do. He does have a good track record of doing the impossible, along with some crazy ideas about issues where he has limited experience.

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